Valerie speaks in the Second Reading of the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill

On Thursday 13 October 2022 I spoke in the Second Reading of the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill. You can read my speech below:

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), and I will pay tribute to him later. It is hard to be here on a Thursday without thinking of the late David Amess and remembering how he always used to come into business questions with a smile on his face. It has been a year, but it does not feel like a year; it has gone so quickly. We remember both David and Jo Cox. It is a very sad time.

I welcome the Minister to his position. I know that he has a lot of work to do. He is a talented author, and I bet he wishes he was reading his books, rather than the Bill. This is a wide-ranging Bill, and the main reforms are to Companies House. I am quite surprised that two Departments are covering this. It is a huge Bill, with six parts, 162 clauses and eight schedules. It is impossible to go through the whole Bill, but I have looked at certain sections of it, and it makes big reforms. I hope that this will all be teased out in Committee, and I want to highlight a few areas. I welcome what my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) said: we welcome the Bill, but with reservations.

Reading the words “Companies House” took me back to when I started working as an articled clerk. I had to go down to Companies House, which was on Old Street then, and look through the microfiches of all the companies; that was the work we did at that time. Having qualified as a lawyer and worked in the Treasury Solicitor’s Department, I saw civil servants when they had the tools and the resources to go after companies, 

and they did that in the public interest—they understood those words, which they picked up over the years by osmosis and the way that departments worked, and they used to wind up companies in the public interest. The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton mentioned going after directors and having that strict liability. There is the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986, but I do not think it is used often, and certainly not to wind up companies in the public interest. I hope the Department will look at that, but that requires resources, and by the time I had left the Treasury Solicitor’s Department, it had been outsourced to other companies.

I am not sure that there is a reference to this in the Bill, but it is possible to buy companies off the shelf and then transfer them to new ownership. What drew me to this issue, as well as my previous experience, is that a couple of constituents contacted me to say that their home address was being used as the registered address of a company, which they were getting mail for, and they could do nothing about it. They got in touch with Companies House. At the time, the Minister wrote a letter to say that there would be a new Bill and reforms, but these people were having to correct the information themselves and provide evidence that they lived at that address—they were the victims, but they had to rectify the register. I hope the Minister will confirm that these new powers will cover that situation, so that the onus will not fall on the victims to rectify the register, and that the registrar will deal with this under the ID verification scheme. There are some concerns about that new scheme. The regulations are still to be made, and it is not clear on the face of the Bill what the process will be and what will count as acceptable evidence; there is concern that it will just be biometrics.

The second case I want to come to is one that I have had three emails and lots of information about, and it is that of a constituent who I will refer to as Mr B—not because that is an expletive deleted or what I feel about him, but because that is his initial. He was going round setting up companies to defraud elderly people, and he was using false addresses. Even now, there are 16 companies registered to Mr B, of which five are active, and they are renewable energy companies. He is not only doing it here; apparently, he has a database of companies around the world—he has victims in India, the USA and Canada. My constituent went to the police and was told to go to Action Fraud, which told her to go to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau, and nothing has been done. Will the Minister meet me to discuss that case? Can he confirm whether the new verification scheme will stop that?

The dynamic duo, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton—what would we do without them? —both mentioned that funding is an issue. We may give Companies House powers, but it must have the tools to finish the job. It is more than just snagging. It only costs £12 to set up a company. In France it is £50, and in Germany it is £100. The APPGs chaired by this dynamic duo who are keeping us safe have both suggested a cost of £50, but as the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) said, the Treasury Committee has suggested that it should be in the region of £100. At today’s rate, someone could set up eight companies—why would they want to? —for £100. If it would help with the costs of verification, the Government should look at the higher figure of £100, because the Treasury Committee has taken evidence on that. We know that over half a million companies are created each year. Transparency International UK found that, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned, between 2000 and 2019 nearly £137 billion was lost in money laundering and corruption.

That leads me to my next concern, which is the method of identity verification. There seem to be two routes mentioned in the Bill—Companies House or an authorised corporate service provider. Again, there is nothing in the Bill about how this will be set up. I know there will be secondary legislation, but I think the House would like to see some of the processes and what exactly that will entail because I have a few questions. What are the transactional costs of using an authorised provider as compared with Companies House? Are we just outsourcing this process and will such providers be accountable to the registrar at Companies House? How many authorised corporate service providers will there be, because this Bill is quite rightly about corporate transparency?

This brings me to the register of overseas entities, which is operational, and as of 11 October 1,605 have registered. I logged on to the register, and the House of Commons Library helpfully took me through the process. I searched through the register and, lo and behold, companies with opaque beneficial owners can still register. I will mention just one: Merakino Ltd, which is registered in Jersey. When I clicked on the beneficial tab, it came up with East Fiduciary AG, with the registered office in Switzerland, and the only person named is the agent in the UK supervised by His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. A company expert has said that about 20% of registrations on that register have a beneficial owner that is a legal entity, not a human being, which shows, sadly, that the register is not working. I hope the Minister will look at this, and say whether he considers that a register in which for 20% of the entries the entity is a company is working.

I, too, agree with other colleagues who have said that this is a missed opportunity, because I feel that the Government have failed to close a huge gap that in effect amounts to economic crime against the British people. I know there will be mumbles about this not being the right vehicle and so on, but I think closure of the non-dom status is a vital area in fraud and in ensuring that money owed to the British people stays here. Those who choose to live, use our services and vote here do not pay their taxes on overseas income, and as my hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor has pointed out, this would raise £3.2 billion a year.

Sadly, in conclusion, I have several questions for the Minister. Will he consider raising the registration fee, as suggested by the Treasury Committee and the APPGs, in line with other countries? Will he look at that, and at an open and robust process for identity verification? Will he look again at closing the loopholes in the overseas register? Will our constituents be safeguarded from the use of their own home addresses? Will Mr B, using fake companies to defraud constituents, be exposed, caught and penalised? Looking through clause 96, one of my concerns is that the registrar can apply civil penalties, but using a civil burden of proof—the burden of proof is “beyond reasonable doubt”, but the penalties are civil ones—so does the Minister, the Department or the Government know how many people will be caught by this, because it is quite a high bar? Our constituents are working hard and they pay their taxes, mostly through pay-as-you-earn, and it is right that we close loopholes and protect them against fraud so that we can continue with the entrepreneurial spirit this country is very good at.

The Bill now goes into the Committee stage where it will be scrutinised line by line. Amendments can be tabled.